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Is It OK To Paint From Photos?

Is It OK To Paint From Photos?

Here’s my answer.

Painting from photos

In my time, I’ve produced a handful of paintings from sketches I’ve made. Maybe several more than that from my imagination – abstracts, mainly.

I don’t paint much from real life either. Painting outdoors, plein air as they say, doesn’t work for me. There are too many distractions out there; I just can’t concentrate properly.

I nearly always paint from photos I’ve taken myself. When I go out, I take a camera and will snap scenes or objects that interest me. Consequently, I have a collection of thousands stored on my laptop.

My rule

As a rule, I don’t use other people’s images. There are exceptions to this, but they’re few and far between. For instance, I might need an old photo from another source for a historical painting. Or someone might commission a painting of their dog and supply photos of the animal. It’s important to remember there are issues of copyright, too.

Not copying

I say all this in the full knowledge that lots of people disapprove of artists working from photographs.

They tend to regard it as copyism. I don’t see it that way.

There are reasons for my approach. When I first started, years ago, I had a full-time job and two young sons. My spare time was very limited. There was little room for my hobby at home and I’ve never had a proper studio space. Working from photos seemed the best way to overcome these restrictions. I never saw any good reason to change my practice.

When I select a photo to work from, I don’t accept it as it is. In my view, there’s no point in picking up a photo and painting it exactly as it is. That is copyism.

My approach

So, I’ve become skilled in using Adobe Photoshop Elements to adapt photos to my preference. I’ll crop a photo, brighten it, crank up the tonal contrast, saturate the colours, add or remove elements and so on. Basically, I’ll alter and enhance it till I’m happy I have something I can use. Generally, it’ll resemble the original in some ways but be different in others.

Sometimes I may create a composite image from two or more images.

Even then, as I work on the painting, I’ll continue to make design choices freely, departing from what I see on my print as it suits me.

Hopefully, by the time I’ve finished, my painting will be a distinct improvement on the original photo.

An example

My featured pic is of a painting I did years back. The scene shows Inchkeith, an island in the Firth of Forth. It’s a good example of what I’m talking about. I took the photo on a dull afternoon. I cropped it (to emphasise the island), brightened it and boosted the colours. While painting, I simplified the distant coastline and the water surface, included a blue sky and violet clouds, and added rocks that weren’t there in real life. The dull afternoon became a sunny evening in the process.

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